When a child in a small community is ill or injured, she no longer belongs only to her parents — she's taken into the hearts of all who know her plight.
Such is the case with 5-year-old Ashley (Batra) Dubey, severely injured by a hit-and-run driver, May 2, while crossing Old Centreville Road to catch her school bus.
While the Bull Run Elementary kindergartner lay in a semi-coma in a hospital bed, Sunday night, some 100 local residents and well-wishers gathered outdoors in the rain, in the Crofton Commons community where she lived, and held a candlelight vigil in her honor.
Holding umbrellas in one hand and candles in the other, they said prayers, sang songs and wiped away tears — doing what they could to offer comfort and support on what was otherwise a bleak Mother's day for the child's family.
"We're all pulling together as a community to say special prayers for Ashley that she's going to pull through this," said her kindergarten teacher, Barbara Schifflin, one of many there from the school. "She's an energetic, spirited, young girl who loves life. She's a fighter, and we're hoping she's going to come back to us."
The accident occurred on Old Centreville Road at Cottingham Lane in Centreville's Crofton Commons community. It was around 8:30 a.m., and Ashley had missed her regular school bus, so she had to catch a later bus that stopped on the other side of busy Old Centreville Road.
Her mother, Seema Dubey, was handing Ashley her backpack when the child saw some school friends already across the street. "I told her to stay with me, and I had her hand," said Dubey. "There was no car coming — he came from out of nowhere." She said they'd just reached the single yellow line in the center of the road when Ashley took one step ahead of her and was struck.
Fairfax County police later identified the driver of the 1997 Chrysler that hit her as Duane Thompson, 38, of Manassas. Police say he allegedly drove off afterward, but witnesses obtained his license-plate number and he was later arrested and charged with felony hit-and-run.
Dubey — along with her 2-year-old son Himanshu, and other parents and children waiting for the bus — watched in horror as the force of the impact flung the little girl some 50 feet in the air. "The next thing I knew, she was on the ground by her backpack," said her mother. "I was numb — I saw her laying there. I was screaming for help."
Luckily, help was already there, in the person of Lt. Jay Palau, a firefighter from the Fair Oaks station. "He was dropping off his child there, and he took [Ashley] from my arms and gave her CPR," said Dubey. "He saved her life." Palau then called for a helicopter to Medevac Ashley to Inova Fairfax Hospital. She was admitted in critical condition but, over the weekend, was upgraded to "serious."
But the dark-haired little girl is far from out of the woods. "She can hear us and blinks her eyes," said her mother. "She opens half an eye and then shuts it back," added her maternal grandfather, Kamal Nayyar of Manassas Park. "[Doctors] are hoping she'll wake up."
He'd visited her Sunday and said she was making a little progress. "She had less tubes [attached to her] today," he said. "But she has an oxygen tube through her nose to help her breathe and another tube for food."
The accident caused an injury to Ashley's head; as a result, said her mother, "she has damage in her brain and can't use her right arm." She said doctors put a steel rod in Ashley's right thigh because of a broken femur. They also did two procedures to release pressure and reduce swelling in her head.
Dubey said she and Ashley's grandparents, Kamal and his wife Kamalesh, take turns staying by the child's bedside during the day, and Ashley's father, Hemant, takes the night shift. They're all scared and devastated by what's happened, and Dubey is also worried about her toddler son.
"He saw everything, so he's going through a lot of trauma, too," she said. "Now, he doesn't want to leave me or let go of me for one second — and he misses his sister."
Normally, said Dubey, Ashley was an active child who loved to paint and watch cartoons. Outgoing and gregarious, she made friends easily. "At home, I always had to tell her to quiet down," said her mother. "Now, I'd give anything to hear her make noise again.
She said doctors tell her Ashley could be in the hospital "two more days or three months — they don't know. It's so hard to see her laying there, and I can't do anything to help her."
Meanwhile, the Crofton Commons neighborhood, friends, relatives, teachers, classmates — and Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) — joined Sunday night to rally 'round Ashley's family. "Nothing brings a community united together like a child in trouble," he said. "Everywhere I've gone since this has happened, everyone has asked me about Ashley. The entire community is praying for [her]."
Bull Run sixth-grader Malik Reed, 12, said he and others at school are upset about the accident: "It was sad to know that a little girl got hit by a car." Ashley's teacher, Barbara Schifflin, said her students were shocked to hear about it, but "I told them the doctors were helping her and they should send special thoughts to Ashley."
To brighten her hospital room, the children made a six-foot banner decorated with their handprints and messages saying, "Get well, Ashley" and "We love you." They also made a cassette tape of themselves singing songs — such as "Angels Watching Over Me" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" — and then each child said a personal, get-well wish.
Bull Run guidance counselor Dana Doss described Ashley as "bubbly" and well-liked by her classmates. Since the accident, she said, "The mood of the school has been pretty somber — it's touched each and every one of us directly."
Last Thursday, May 9, all the children wore pink ribbons to show their support for Ashley; and on Tuesday, May 14, during the school news show's moment of silence, Principal Thom Clement asked the students to hold Ashley in their thoughts.
Crofton Commons resident Scott Bach-Hansen helped organize Sunday's vigil and ran the program. And since grief knows no racial or ethnic boundaries — Ashley's family is from India — prayers were said aloud in English, Spanish and Hindu, and a woman shouted to the heavens, asking God to "enter [Ashley's] hospital room tonight and heal [her], and wrap her parents in Your arms and give them peace."
Bach-Hansen led the group in the "23rd Psalm" and "The Lord's Prayer." Everyone sang the hymns, "Pass it On" and "Amazing Grace" and, fighting back tears, Doss read a special poem written by a local mom. Neighbor Heather Vinter asked for a moment of silence in honor of Ashley's mother, saying, "I don't think there's any love stronger than God's, except for a mother's love for her child."
Bach-Hansen thanked everyone for coming together as a community: "Go from this place knowing you have brothers and sisters who'll take care of you — and that the safety of our neighborhood will be taken care of down the road. But for now, we need to pray for Ashley."
Longtime family friend Nikki Stevens, visiting the Dubeys from Pennsylvania, called the neighbors wonderful. And Kamal Nayyar said it's certainly "worth living in this country, the way they've shown their concern for my granddaughter."
A Centreville resident for 10 years, Seema Dubey was overwhelmed with the kindness toward her family. With a flash of optimism, she said, "We're planning to have a big party for everyone when Ashley comes home."